Oka Rusmini Lontar
Something has been on my mind of late, something that bothers me. I’ve become irritated by my daughter, extremely irritated by the questions that she’s been asking. They’ve given me cause to think and begun to disturb my sleep.
“Why do you prepare offerings every day?” she asked me one day. Sitting cross-legged on the floor and staring at me, she looked for all the world like a young boy. And maybe what the oracle I consulted had to say about her is true: that two spirits reside within my daughter, a boy-spirit and a girl-spirit. At times Putu does act, more than anything else, like a naughty and impudent young boy. But then, at other times, she is your typical girl-child – sensitive and sweet. Personally I think that two of her ancestors have been reincarnated inside her and it is this that sometimes makes my precious child far too critical for the likes of a person so young.
When she asked me that question, I stared back at her and said: “For God.”
She looked at me more intently. The gleam in her eyes seemed to draw from my eyes all the light that they possessed. “For God, huh?”
“Yes, for God.”
She played with the hem of her dress. “But God isn’t human, is he? I’m human and I have to eat. Does God have to eat, too?”
I didn’t respond.
“If God has to eat, that means he’s human,” she added seriously, while tugging on my skirt.
“God is not human!” I spurted.
“Then what is he?” she challenged.
I had a difficult time thinking of an explanation for this curious child of mine.
“You have to eat, don’t you?” I asked her.
“Yes. But what about God?” she asked, almost shouting, with an unexpected urgency.
“The offerings that I prepare before you and your Father take your meals are a way of giving thanks.”
She gave me a serious look. “So, you mean you have to bribe God, so that you can get a share?”
I rolled my eyes.
“What then?” she asked innocently.
“That’s not it. It’s a sign of appreciation to God for granting your father a good job. That’s how he is able to buy you nice clothes, candy, toys, and dolls.”
“Well if you didn’t make an offering every day, would God get angry?”
“God never gets angry.”
“Well, then why do it every day?” Putu asked with some logic. She stroked my hand and looked into my eyes again. “Mother,” she said in a half-whisper, “what if we make a test for God?”
I rolled my eyes again. Gracious! What had gotten into the head of my precious girl?
I endeavored to be patient. “What are you talking about?”
“Testing God. Would that make him angry? I want to see him angry.” She then spoke into my ear, another half-whisper. “But you have to be careful, Mother...” She blinked; her round eyes displayed an unusual precociousness.
My irritation at Putu’s questions suddenly changed to curiosity. “Why?”
“We can’t let Odah know!” she whispered firmly.
Why couldn’t her grandmother know? Now even more curious, I put the offering that I had been making in the kitchen and then went back to her.
“She’ll get mad at you. I don’t like the sound of her voice when she talks to you,” she went on to explain. “It’s like she doesn’t love you.”
I stroked her pale cheek. My heart suddenly swelled with emotion. A strange kind of happiness spread through me. I know it sounds almost too proud of me to say so, but I suddenly felt that I had succeeded as a mother, one loved by the child born of her womb.
It was the truth. I loved being a mother, but how long had it taken for me to achieve my dream, to see the dream materialize before my eyes? Putu’s simple statement made me swell with pride; I felt myself to be finally and truly a mother. I wanted to shout out my feelings to the whole world. I hugged Putu tightly and kissed her cheek. I lightly pinched the tip of her nose. I had never imagined that there might come from my womb such a wonderful child, a child capable of giving meaning to my existence, one that would give me the strength and the knowledge that I had a role to play in this world.
“Is that what you think too, Mother?” Putu’s question yanked me back to reality.
I said nothing. I didn’t understand the direction in which her questions were leading. She looked up at the sky, puckered her small lips, and then turned back at me.
She spoke uncertainly: “My teacher told me that God loves people who are good and hates people who are bad. It would be hard to be God, wouldn’t it, Mother?”
She scratched her scalp and then sat down beside me. “I was wondering how I could help God with his work?” She was almost mumbling now. “There are so many bad people in this world. Aren’t there, Mother? You know, if God wanted it, I could help him. Do you think that would be okay?” Her eyes gleamed with the question.
I turned away, still not understanding my daughter’s train of thought. She looked at me intently, then shook my hand, a forced approval of her request. I nodded not quite knowing what the result of my assent would be. Putu then stood up and shouted with glee. I didn’t know what to say.
My sleep that night was even more restless than usual. Beside me, sleeping soundly with his back to me, was the man I loved. I sighed and glanced at the clock beside my reading lamp. One o’clock? I found it difficult to close my eyes.
My husband rolled over until his face was in front of mine. His gentle breath touched my cheek.
I stroked his face gently. I had no idea what had been happening to me lately. I had this constant feeling of being on the verge of tears; at times I’d find myself overcome, without any warning, by a feeling of immense and painful sadness. It was like I was going to experience some life-changing situation, but didn’t know what it was going to be. All I knew was that that in the near future I was going to experience something that would make me cry. But what it was, I couldn’t say.
I looked back at my husband’s face and saw how tired he looked after a day of work. But he was one never to complain.
“They accepted my proposal, Ratih.” Those were the only words he said to me, which meant that he would not be home at all during the day.
Six years we’ve been together. Ever since I was a child, I had always planned my life, always tried to make sure that I achieved what I wanted to achieve. I was always thinking about the future. Life, for me, was full of targets.
When I chose the man I wanted to marry, a friend and classmate of mine at the university strongly criticized my choice. “What! You want to marry him, Ratih?” she had shrieked. “Are you insane! What are you going to eat?” She looked at me seriously. “Are you ready for the lifestyle of a journalist?”
I shrugged my shoulders in answer. I don’t know what I was thinking back then. All I knew at the time was that he was the nicest man that I had ever known. He understood my problems, my insecurities and my emotional ups and downs. When I chose him I had no idea whether what I felt was true love. I didn’t have the courage to answer that question. From all the books that I had read I gathered that there is no such a thing as true love. Love gradually fades and disappears; just as a honeymoon must end, so too, love passes – at least that’s what the books said. I just don’t know what was inside my head when I chose him.
I can only laugh to myself when I remember the way he proposed to me.
“I don’t have a beautiful poem for you, Ratih. I can’t even choose the right words. But what would you say if I said that I want to marry you?”
I laughed. “And do you want to marry me today?”
He laughed too. “I’ll give you a week to think about it and will accept whatever you decide. Tomorrow will be a busy day because I want to introduce you to my family.” There were no superfluous formalities; he just kissed my cheek and then left to chase down a story. The story, he said, would become headline news. And if that happened, he would be promoted to head of the agency’s representative office in Bali.
For whatever reason, I liked both the manner in which he approached me and his frankness towards me. He was the sort of man I needed, one who didn’t order me around.
The next day I spent the entire day being introduced to his family.
The wedding took place and the ceremony was one of great simplicity for a person such as myself who had been raised in royal surroundings. Just a small ceremony. No big feast such as the ones in my family, those held for daughters of the nobility.
It was a strange feeling for me to become part of my husband’s family. And from the way my three sisters-in-law acted towards me, I had an inkling of what kind of life for me lay ahead.
“My sisters are a bit sharp-tongued but I hope that you’ll be able to get along with them,” my husband warned.
I only nodded.
As a daughter of the nobility marrying into the family of a commoner, I had to completely change my ways. In the past I had always been waited upon by servants; they prepared my food, they took care of my bed. My life was only for my career. All the minor tasks in life were handled by family retainers. Now everything had changed. I was the one who had to wash and iron the clothes, who had to cook in what was for me an extremely filthy kitchen. I had to use wood for fuel, the smoke from which made it difficult to breathe and caused me to choke. But this was nothing compared to my mother-in-law’s comments.
“You’re my son’s wife now and you have to do the way things we do them,” she would remind me while giving me a cynical look.
I would nod and say nothing of this to my husband, always trying to make myself understand that when a woman marries she must start again from zero. I tried to reassure myself that I had made the right choice and that I would be able to change that zero to the number one and the number one to something higher until I had achieved the pinnacle of my dreams.
I looked at my husband again and put my arms around his thin body. That was the only way to rid myself of my secret burdens.
A year after we were married I asked him what his dreams were now.
“I only want for you to be happy,” he said.
“Is that all? Nothing else?”
“For our baby to be a girl.”
I was somewhat startled by his response. A girl? Girls had so few rights. Why didn’t my husband want a boy? A boy would become a guardian for my old age? But a girl? What would happen when she married and her husband took her away? She would then have her own world, her own separate family. What would happen to me? I grimaced at the thought.
“What’s wrong?” my husband asked me. “Is it your stomach?”
“No. What else do you want?” I asked again, hoping that he would say a house, even the smallest of homes, as long as it was ours alone. I would then be able to take care of it myself.
In his family’s home, where we were living, I couldn’t do anything right. One day I purchased seven hibiscus trees to plant in the back of the house, near the family temple, to give it a more pleasant appearance. I chose varieties with brightly-colored flowers so that I could use them to decorate my hair. What with all the ceremonies that a Balinese must participate in, I thought they’d be perfect.
I spent the day planting those bushes and, while working, I thought about the other three young women in the house, none of whom seemed to have the least inclination to beautify the family home or its land. My three sisters-in-law were all beautiful and dressed very well. So where was their sense of beauty? All I could do was sigh. At six o’clock that evening I finished my work in the garden, but then…
Very early the next morning my mother-in-law was already shrieking in my ear. She detested my choice of flowers and said that her house was not a jungle and certainly not that of a noble family. She went on and on.
Something that she often hurt me with was her persistent invocation of my noble title. I often heard her tell her daughters, my sisters-in-law, “How unfortunate it is when a girl of noble birth marries into a common family.”
I was often made the scapegoat for other problems as well. For example, my mother-in-law often told my sisters-in-law, Madé, Nyoman and Ketut, that they hadn’t been able to find husbands all because of me. “If Gedé hadn’t married a noblewoman you would surely be married by now.” My mother-in-law also told them that noblewomen had supernatural powers, because of which a minor battle ensued any time I tried to plant anything.
With my supernatural abilities, they said, I was planting my powers in the house in order to take control. God Most High! All I could do was grit my teeth and bear it when I saw those beautiful shrubs yanked from the ground. I could almost feel the tears that fell from the tips of the leaves and buds of my seven hibiscus bushes.
A logical mind wouldn’t accept such reasoning but in the end, because of it, I had to refrain from planting anything at all.
In time I gave birth and my child was indeed a girl. At first I was disappointed but the feeling soon vanished when I touched this part of my own flesh.
“Just wait,” my husband said. “She’ll become your protector. My mother will be nothing compared to her. She’ll be even more finicky than my sisters!” His eyes shone as he repeatedly kissed my lips. I felt embarrassed by so much attention, but my husband didn’t seem to care.
It was at that moment, when I hugged my newly-born child, that my desire for a son vanished. Maybe this child would be able to protect me from the sneers of my sisters-in-law.
Fortunately, after Putu’s birth, my sisters-in-law also married. It was such a relief, but then I was left alone with my mother-in-law who was becoming ever-more absent minded and an ever greater complainer.
“What’s wrong?” my husband asked. “You’re getting so thin. Are you unhappy?”
Not wanting to burden him, I said nothing, but I gripped his hand tightly.
“You’re upset. Tell me what it is.”
“It’s nothing,” I answered lightly, folding my arms around myself.
“I’ve been asked to open a representative office here next month,” he said as if in passing.
I stared at him. He was always like that, so self-effacing, never showing any great emotion about the prestigious advances he made in his field.
Even though I had been exiled by my family for not marrying a man of my caste, during my second year of marriage, I became convinced that my choice had been the right one and that I was willing to bear all the risks my choice entailed.
My husband was the kind of man I needed, one capable of keeping my own emotions under control. When I first met him, I was a very emotional person, and wasn’t interested in him at all. He didn’t meet my criteria at all: he seemed to lack ambition and was rather strange besides. The truth is, however, after I got to know him, I found that he was full of surprises. His way of criticizing me was never judgmental. His questions were always rhetorical. They stirred my mind and made me want to discuss them with him. With him, I was free to say whatever I wanted.
I remember well one time when we were talking about career choices. I had been hoping to move to Jakarta, to continue my studies at the University of Indonesia. I argued that as a university lecturer, it was my duty keep on studying.
The look he gave me was not one of sympathy.
“Of course, you need a framework for your life. That’s what an education is supposed to provide, but you also have to accept the reality of things. It seems like you’ve been doing very well, but you still don’t appear to be happy. You have potential, I know you do, and great motivation. I know that goals are important but I also know that one should never pursue a goal that one is incapable of achieving. There is more to life than success.”
His response reminded me that in life there were things other than education and a career to consider. His words served to open my eyes and, at the same time, draw me closer to him. I saw that God had sent me a prince. Perhaps he was of the wrong caste, perhaps there was no noble blood in his veins. Even so, I knew that he would be the perfect father for my children. And, following that decision, any desire I might have had for a single and independent life evaporated.
I gave my child a spirited name, Putu Prameswari Dewi, and from the time she was an infant I could not help but notice her amazingly precocious intelligence. I wanted for her to be my Srikandi, a woman warrior, who would conquer all of the fears in my life.
My daughter’s voice startled me from my reverie. “Mother, you never take me to see my other odah.”
“Odah? Which Odah?” “Odah” was a term reserved only for a grandmother or elderly woman of common background. “Are you talking about my mother? If you are you must call her “Niang.” Because my mother is a noblewoman you may not call her “Odah.” And when you talk to her, before the word “Niang” you must also say, “Ratu,” which is the proper title of respect.”
I could not imagine the scorn of my high-born family if my child were to use the term Odah to refer to my mother. Their eyes would jump out of their heads. I shivered at the thought of it.
“I want to see my other Odah, your mother,” Putu insisted. “I don’t like my Odah here. When can we go?” My five-year-old child sulked and tugged on my dress.
Go home to my parents’ home? I felt the blood drain from my face upon hearing Putu’s request. Hadn’t I deliberately estranged myself from the home in which I had been raised? I had brought my high-born family into disrepute by not marrying a man of the same caste.
“Mother…” Putu stared at me and then sat down in my lap.
“What do you want now?” I stroked her long hair. How beautiful she was. I wanted her to be a dancer, a famous Balinese dancer who possessed the dancing skills of the gods. I wanted her to be a woman who knew the customs and culture of her ancestors. I wanted her to be a woman respected for her own achievements and capabilities, not just because her father was a famous journalist or her mother a woman of noble birth…”
Putu’s mouth was next to my ear. “When I grow up I want to go and visit my Odah in the palace. She’s not bad, is she, like my Odah here?”
I took a breath and kissed her ear. Her smell of innocence spread entered my body and my bones, making me feel that same sense of happiness again. I felt that I had just become a woman in the fullest sense of the word.
When I was in my twenties the thought of marriage never entered my mind. To be tied to one man forever? I couldn’t imagine it. After years of being together, what would I have to say to him? And what would I have to do for him? No, my image of marriage was not a pleasant one. How could I live with a man for so many years?
I never thought that I would one day be dealing with “women’s business” – having to tend a crying child when I would much prefer to be buried in a new book, working on an essay for a seminar, or simply walking in the garden or cooling my feet in the garden pool after a day of reading and teaching.
Yes, those were sweet memories, I had to admit, but now I had something sweeter and felt myself completely fulfilled.
One day my mother-in-law disappeared. At first my husband and I assumed that she had gone to visit one of her other children and had forgotten to tell us of her plans, something not uncommon for her to do. But then, after a week had passed, and there was still no word from her, my husband began to suspect that his sisters were intentionally trying to keep her from us.
“Who knows, they might even be conspiring against us,” he suggested. “You know how they go on about you.”
That was true. Ever since our marriage I had tried to be a good daughter-in-law and, in time, my mother-in-law’s attitude towards me did begin to change. But just at that point, when she began to treat me well, my sisters-in-law came to muddy the waters.
“Mother, you shouldn’t trust Dayu Ratih,” I overheard them say. “Why you yourself said that she has supernatural powers. Didn’t you say it yourself that Dayu Ratih wants to take control of this house?”
“I don’t think that’s true,” my mother-in-law said in my defense. Hearing those words from her mouth, I felt happy for the first time in my house.
“To prove it, just look at how she’s turned little Putu against you.”
That must have been the winning argument, for after that time my mother-in-law stopped eating the food that I cooked. Our relationship, which had slowly begun to develop into something warm, now began to cool and soon ended completely.
“I’m going to search their houses,” my husband announced with a growl.
But the reality of the situation? After visiting his sisters and accusing them of hiding their mother, he discovered that she was not with them either. My mother-in-law had indeed gone missing. Community elders suggested that we consult a medium so I took myself off to all corners to meet with, what were for me, some very odd people. Although I was completely skeptical of their alleged powers, nonetheless whenever I met one of them my heart would beat faster from my feeling of apprehension and fright.
My mother-in-law’s disappearance became big news. How could a person just disappear? Then, one day, about a month after she had gone, I began to smell a rotten odor emanating from somewhere at the side of the house. My neighbors also began to smell it and came to me thinking that I might have disposed of a dog of ours that died in area reserved for rubbish.
When my husband came home from work that day I asked him about it. “You know that dog that died, where did you dispose of it?” My voice quavered with emotion.
“Down by the river,” he said.
“You’re lying!” I accused, but he merely smiled and flicked me on the chin.
He then took me in his arms and held my body in a tight embrace. “Are you okay?” he asked.
I shook my head. “No, it’s just that awful smell.”
“I know, the water in the bathroom smells rotten too.”
He was right, but I had presumed that was because of the extra long dry season and the fact that the well had gone dry. Then something dawned on me. I pulled myself from his embrace and hurried off towards the well.
“It’s coming from in here!” I shouted when reaching the well’s edge.
My husband stared into the well and then pinched his nose shut.
“I’ll go find Kobyor, the well digger.”
I nodded my head in agreement with his suggestion and then returned my attention to the preparation of my notes for a drama lecture the following day.
When my husband returned with Kobyor, a scary-looking man with a lined face and darkened skin, the well-digger immediately began to work his way down into the depths of the well. I shivered at the thought of entering such a place.
About five minutes later he began to call out my husband’s name. The source of the rotten smell was, as it turned out, that same old woman I had just begun to love, the rotting corpse of my mother-in-law.
The funeral ceremony was held as soon as was possible. We also held a purification ceremony to cleanse the grounds of the house. I then had a new well dug and the old one closed up.
In the month that followed the discovery of my mother-in-law’s body, I was so busy with these affairs, I had almost no time to spend with Putu, much less the energy. Finally, when the work began to subside I thought of my daughter and how I had been neglecting her. I longed to speak to her and tell her stories once more.
That morning she was playing near the temple, gathering leaves from off the trees, and she smiled broadly when seeing me.
Taking my hand, she looked calmly up at me. “You know what happened to Odah, don’t you, Mother? I did it, Mother. I gave God a hand and pushed her into the well.”
Translated by Ben Reader
Oka Rusmini was born in Jakarta on 11 July 1967. She is a well-known writer of poetry, short stories, novels, dramas and children’s literature and is a regular contributor and staff member of the Bali Post newspaper. Her work has appeared in numerous anthologies and she is the recipient of many literary awards, including the SEA Writers Award from the Kingdom of Thailand in 2012 and in the prestigious 2014 Khatulistiwa Award for poetry. Her novel Tarian Bumi (Dance of the Earth) has been translated and published in English and German.
This award winning short story has been chosen for inclusion in The Lontar Anthology of Indonesian Short Stories, Lontar’s forthcoming history of the Indonesian short story in the 20th century. This story has been reproduced here with Lontar's permission.
Inside Indonesia 118: Oct-Dec 2014